Twice Expropriated: Poland and Spain misrepresent restitution of two paintings

Commission for Looted Art in Europe 4 February 2023

On 25 January 2023,  AP together with several other news agencies and outlets including ARTnews, reported the apparent 'good news story' that Spain had ‘returned' to Poland two Nazi looted paintings seized in Warsaw in 1941.The paintings, a diptych attributed to the 15th century Flemish painter Dieric Bouts,

Mater Dolorosa and Ecce Homo, had been located in the Pontevedra Museum in Galicia which acquired them in 1994 from a Spanish private collector. The first documented reappearance of the paintings after the war had been on the Madrid art market in 1973 when they were acquired by the private collector.

The slightest effort to check the story issued to the press would have shown that the paintings do not belong to Poland but to the Czartoryski family whose entire Gołuchów collection was seized by the Nazis in 1941. The seizure of the collection was famously described and given as an example of Nazi art plunder by the American prosecutors at  the Nuremberg Trials in 1945-6 where art looting was prosecuted as a war crime.

Nonetheless, in 2020 Polish officials made a claim to the Pontevedra Museum for the paintings and the director of the museum, while telling the family '‘we intend to attend international rules and return the diptych to the rightful owners", decided to send them to Poland. This took place once the Spanish government, which had also informed the family that no export permit would be provided until the ownership was resolved, issued the export permits.

Description of the Diptych as belonging to the Czartoryski family in the Polish government Catalogue of Wartime Losses - Objects Lost as a Result of the Second World War - at

There could have been no doubt in Spain or Poland about the rightful ownership of the paintings which are published by the Polish government’s Ministry of Culture and National Heritage both in volumes of wartime losses and in their online database as owned by the Czartoryski family collection of Gołuchów. 

Checking the story would also have shown that the Polish government’s claim for the paintings was in contravention of the rights of the family, the rightful owners, whose agreement was never sought by Poland. On the contrary, the family were forced to seek the support of other European governments and make a counter-claim to prevent this second expropriation of their paintings.

However, Spain, like Poland, decided to ignore the family’s ownership rights, as well as the Washington Principles which require Nazi looted artworks to be returned to their individual owners, and agreed to ‘return’ the paintings to Poland. This ‘return’ contravenes both the Washington Principles and the Terezin Declaration as well as all other post-war commitments and laws. It is to be hoped that no other country or institution will enable the Polish government, whose attachment to the rule of law is notoriously fickle, to abrogate the rights of private individuals to seize their property and take it to Poland. 

The paintings have now been expropriated from the family, again. Their only recourse is to take the Polish government to court with the sure outcome that, in the unlikely event that they won, the paintings would not receive an export license.

The family, whose legal challenge was ignored by the Spanish authorities, said: ‘It is sad to see that eighty years after the paintings were seized, the governments of both Spain and Poland show no regard for the rights of individuals'.

Over the last 25 years, the family have recovered several works of art from Austria, Israel and the USA, among others, often with the support of those governments. Previous Polish Ministers of Culture also offered the family their support, stating in writing that all the objects from the Gołuchów collection belonged to the family and making a written commitment that the Polish state would do nothing to recover any of the family’s looted works of art unless legally authorised by the family.

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